Updated at 11:30 p.m. ET
Kilauea — Hawaii’s most active volcano — began spewing lava into a residential area on Thursday, forcing evacuations after hundreds of small earthquakes in recent days telegraphed an impending eruption.
The new flow on Hawaii’s Big Island came just hours after a 5.0-magnitude temblor, the strongest in a series of magnitude 2.5 or greater quakes to strike the area.
The Honolulu Advertiser says the lava flow opened up in Leilani Estates in lower Puna, about 25 miles from Kilauea shortly after 4 p.m. local time (10 p.m. ET).
“A plume shot up over the large East Hawaii subdivision,” the newspaper reports.
Just prior to the eruption, Hawaii County Civil Defense officials were quoted by the newspaper as saying they were on “high alert” for the possibility of an eruption in the area.
The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory said the quake, which struck at 10:30 a.m. local time, “caused rockfalls and possibly an additional collapse” into the Pu’u O’o, a crater on the Kilauea volcano that has been slowly crumbling.
A pink plume of ash could be seen briefly wafting over the crater but no other significant changes had been observed, HVO said on its website.
Geologists had predicted that the ongoing temblors — more than 600 in the past three days — were an indication that lava could break through the surface at any time.
Most of the quakes have been in the magnitude 2.0 range and until Thursday morning, the largest recorded was 4.2.
The agency that operates the county’s emergency preparedness and response program had warned residents to prepare for evacuation in case of an eruption.
“A lava breakout remains a possibility — and it could happen quickly,” Janet Babb, an HVO geologist, told NPR, adding that these types of events are nearly impossible to predict.
Babb explained that the rumbling in the region goes back to mid-March when the cone of the Pu’u O’o crater began to swell and the pressure trapped inside caused the crater floor to collapse on April 30. That forced an intrusion of the magma, which means that rather than gushing upward through the crater of the volcano, it starting seeping underground.
As it moves beneath the surface, the molten lava is breaking up rock and causing the ground to shift. That process results in earthquakes. And the fear is that lava will spew out of cracks created by those earthquakes and destroy nearby homes.
Since Monday the magma has moved under major highways and also to Leilani Estates.
Hawaii News Now reported that several quakes Wednesday “created cracks in the roadway,” measuring up to 18 inches long and 2 inches wide in some places.
National Park Service officials have shut down 16,000 acres of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park as a precaution. And a local charter school was also closed on Thursday.
Babb compared this week’s volcanic activity to an eruption of Kilauea in 1955 that lasted 88 days and covered about 3,900 acres in lava, destroying nearby communities.